UnitedHealth Group has launched a temporary infusion center in Minnetonka to provide antibody treatments that could help a subset of COVID-19 patients avoid hospitalizations.

Many hospitals and clinics in Minnesota already provide the infusions, but the offering by the Minnetonka-based health care giant is unusual in its home state.

In Las Vegas, where UnitedHealth Group's Optum division already operates a large multi-specialty clinic, the company's new dedicated space for antibody infusions fits with its broader push into direct patient care. The infusion center in the Twin Cities, meanwhile, is a "pop-up" option, officials said, that's meant simply to respond to the public health crisis — not a first step toward a long-term outpost for clinical care.

Located near the UnitedHealth Group corporate campus, the new infusion center is part of a broader push for research and development work related to the pandemic at a unit called OptumLabs.

"I anticipate that there will be more clinics that there will be a need for — and I hope that OptumLabs is going to step up and set up those access points," said Dr. Dan Griffin, a senior infectious disease fellow at UnitedHealth Group who also works at the company's large medical group in New York.

"Not everyone is going to decide to get vaccinated," Griffin said. "So, we don't think COVID is going to vanish — we don't think it's going to zero. ... We're expecting there to continue to be COVID cases in the fall, in the winter."

The treatment consists of "monoclonal antibodies," which are laboratory-made proteins that block the pandemic virus from attaching to and entering human cells.

Former President Donald Trump was treated with monoclonal antibodies when he got sick with COVID-19 last year.

The drug companies Eli Lilly and Regeneron make their own versions of the antibodies, which have been cleared for emergency use by federal regulators.

Provided to patients through a state-federal program, antibodies are given to people with certain risk factors who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have mild to moderate symptoms.

A locator website lists a few dozen infusion centers that are providing the treatment within 100 miles of the Twin Cities metro.

In Minnesota, Mayo Clinic was the first to provide the treatment, but now other centers offer it including Allina Health System and M Health Fairview.

Doctors initially feared demand for the antibodies would far exceed the supply, but it turns out there has been plenty to go around in Minnesota.

State officials said last week that infusion centers in Minnesota have provided 3,471 courses of treatment, or about a third of the 10,183 courses accepted by the state thus far.

One factor is that the infusion can take up to an hour and require subsequent monitoring. Another is that antibodies became available in November and December when hospitals and clinics were struggling with a surge of COVID-19 patients, and lacked resources to create new infusion centers.

Griffin said he expected demand will grow as more patients learn about the antibodies. What's more, some infusions now can be provided in just 16 minutes, he said.

UnitedHealth Group launched the infusion centers in Minnetonka and Las Vegas in January. The treatment is provided at no charge, and patients do not need to have coverage through the company's UnitedHealthcare insurance division.

Anyone over age 65 with a COVID-19 diagnosis is eligible for treatment, which must be given within 10 days of symptom onset. Younger people with certain risk factors are also eligible.

"If you wait until they start getting sick, and until they go into that early inflammatory phase and they're headed to the hospital," Griffin said, "you've missed your window."

Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck